August 23, 2010 by Leah
The more I think about it, the more I don’t think grocery expenditure is as easy a scapegoat as I made it out to be in my last post. First, being able to sort out wine (which some might regard as just pure extravagance) from food would help. (I am amazed I seem to have discovered a downside to being able to buy intoxicating beverages at the grocery store. When I lived in Alaska, where alcohol is only sold in liquor stores, it was much easier to monitor my booze budget.) Second, and more importantly, the human relationship to food is extremely complex. It’s far more complicated than the amount of money we exchange for the things we will eventually eat.
I have a whole list of things I consider when I’m buying food in a grocery store. Some items on this list include: fat, calorie, fiber, and sodium content; price per unit; how it’s packaged; presence of preservatives and ingredients I can’t pronounce; provenance of food (Organic? Fair trade? Carbon footprint – how far did it have to travel to get to me? What’s the condition of the cow/chicken/farmer/migrant worker who brought me this? Are there pesticides? Bad bacteria?); how I’m going to store and prepare the food; whether my husband will help me eat the food… Is it even food?
I love Michael Pollan’s books. His advice on how to eat (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”) as laid out in “In Defense of Food” defines food as “anything your great-grandmother would recognize as food” (I’m paraphrasing). While I don’t wholly agree with this (my great-grandmother probably thought anything “in aspic” was the apex of haute cuisine), it definitely rules out Cheetoes and, sob, Pepperidge Farm Goldfish Crackers, as food. As with any reasonable diet or diet advice, Pollan’s is flexible enough to allow some leeway for things like desserts and Goldfish crackers (I buy the whole grain kind, okay?).
Speaking of diets, I feel like I’ve been on one since I was nine (that’s how old I was when I started counting fat grams). It’s true what they say that diets don’t work but lifestyle changes do. A couple of years ago I managed to lose about 40 pounds, and while it’s hard to pinpoint what finally worked, I know I really cut down on the processed foods I was eating. Of course, I still want to lose more weight (being technically “overweight,” which is a heck of a lot better than “obese”), but I’m working on this slowly, using exercise and the Weight Watchers online tools (I love the program – it’s like $17 a month and totally emphasizes health) to help the process along. This rich history adds yet another facet to my relationship with food – I still all-too-clearly remember it being “the enemy.”
Even with this rocky relationship history, my current feelings about food are overwhelmingly positive. Cooking it (generally) relaxes me and allows me to express my creativity and even my love for my family. I feel great – occasionally even ebullient – when Aaron and I are sitting down to a home-cooked meal of whole foods that are packed full of nutrients and that taste delicious. I spend hours every week planning and executing meals, and I enjoy it. Even if I’m tired and don’t want to deal, I have fall-back plans (baked chicken, steamed vegetable, and quinoa, is a staple). All of these feelings are much more apparent when I know exactly where our food comes from, which brings me to the farmer’s market.
We are SO lucky in our local farmer’s market. Actually, there are farmer’s markets within driving distance five days a week in our area, but I like to hit the one at the Marina on Sunday mornings, since it offers fish and bison meat as well as fruits and veg. When I shop at the farmer’s market, I set a budget (easy, since all transactions are cash) and go wild. I don’t have to worry about fat, calories, preservatives, or provenance. If I have questions, I can ask the person selling me the food. The fish guy knows where the black cod were caught, so I can buy Alaskan (Alaska has the world’s best-run fisheries, quite possibly because it was colonized so late in the game). The egg girl is actually the chicken farmer, so she can assure me that the chickens do indeed run around a yard eating bugs. The bison man can tell you not only where and how the animal was grown, because he grew it, but how to cook its meat. And the fruits and vegetables are tasty and cheap, as well as being mostly organic (or at least chemical-free – the organic certification can be hard to come by for some small farmers). Talking to all these people even provides me with social interaction and makes me feel connected to my community. How do you price all that?
A recent study on per-capita expenditures on food (yes, I know Whole Foods was a sponsor and I shun the company’s CEO’s bad internet behavior) shows that we currently spend 10% of our income on food, down from 22% in 1949. The Bailey family (that’s us) spent 24% of our income in July on food. While still high, particularly for two of us, it doesn’t seem as “obscene” as it did when it was just a number.
$3.50 a dozen eggs
$23.50 two grass-fed bison steaks
$8 slightly over a pound of sand dabs
$18 slightly over a pound of black cod
$8 pita bread and avocado-cilantro hummus
$9.50 twelve potatoes and six onions
$3 four ears of corn
$3 enough green beans for supper and leftovers
$5 three large tomatoes
$3.50 two portabellas